There is no shortage of reasons to revolt against the situation in which Iraqis find themselves seventeen years after their country was sanctioned, invaded, occupied and destroyed by US and British imperialism, all in the name of democracy and freedom. What had been one of the most modern and industrially advanced societies in the Middle East, with an enviable record in health, education and welfare funded by ample domestic oil revenues, was comprehensively trashed, leaving behind nothing but wreckage and depleted uranium. To this day, despite (or because of) the lucrative involvement of major US companies assisting in the supposed ‘reconstruction’ efforts, Iraq’s basic infrastructure remains at a most rudimentary level, with frequent power cuts. Promises to use Iraq’s oil revenues to rebuild the country, now echoed by Trump as a cover for the plunder of Syria’s oil, have come to naught.
So there is plenty to protest about in Iraq, and the government of the day that is currently carrying the can must expect to be the immediate focus of popular wrath. Industry is on its back, unemployment is rife, electricity and gas supply is unreliable, the state is too weak to fix anything, corruption is rampant.
But the main driver keeping the state weak and corruption flourishing is the corrupting role of US imperialism itself, expressed not least in the continuing military occupation of Iraq by thousands of US grunts, their numbers recently swollen by troops retreating from Syria.
Some of the protestors are reported as saying that economic and political reforms will not be enough, that the whole political class needs to be demolished, arguing that the existing system of faith-based and ethnic quotas and parliamentary factions is the source of corruption. The imperialist media gleefully quote these views, ‘forgetting’ that the existing political system which now so offends them was the one imposed on the country under US occupation. It was the US that stoked up sectarian hatreds in secular Iraq, stirring up antagonism between Shia and Sunni in order to divide and weaken the resistance to its criminal occupation. It was under the shadow of the US gun that the puppet state and puppet government were established, bolstered by a demoralised national army dependent on militias. So long as these political arrangements served the purpose of keeping Iraq weak and divided, the imperialists and their media raised no great objections.
But successive puppet governments began to act as puppets should not act, gibbing at the continued military occupation of Iraq and embracing the militia of the PMU (popular militia units) which had supplied backbone to the Iraqi army in the successful destruction of Islamic State forces. Mahdi himself owed his premiership to an alliance between the radical populist Moqtada al-Sadr and the PMU leader Hadi al-Amiri. Mahdi in his brief tenure managed to wind up the US in several ways, as detailed by EJ Magnier:
“The recent decisions of Abdel Mahdi made him extremely unpopular with the US. He has declared Israel responsible for the destruction of the five warehouses of the Iraqi security forces, Hashd al-Shaabi, and the killing of one commander on the Iraqi-Syrian borders. He opened the crossing at al-Qaem between Iraq and Syria to the displeasure of the US embassy in Baghdad, whose officers expressed their discomfort to Iraqi officials. He expressed his willingness to buy the S-400 and other military hardware from Russia. Abdel Mahdi agreed with China to reconstruct essential infrastructure in exchange for oil, and gave a $284 million electricity deal to a German rather than an American company. The Iraqi Prime Minister refused to abide by US sanctions and is still buying electricity from Iran and allowing the exchange of commerce that is bringing large amounts of foreign currency and boosting the Iranian economy. And lastly, Abdel Mahdi rejected the ‘Deal of the Century’ proposed by the US: he is trying to mediate between Iran and Saudi Arabia and therefore is showing his intention to keep away from the US objectives and policies in the Middle East” (‘The US-Iran silent war is transformed into an “Iraq uprising”’, 5 October 2019).
Another ‘colour revolution’?
It is this un-puppet like behaviour that imperialism objects to, not the corruption, and is the reason why its tame media have geared up into full colour revolution mode, just like in its coverage of the Maidan protests in Ukraine and the attempted counter revolution in Hong Kong. Every string is being pulled to drive the protests down the path of blaming Iran for the ills in society instead of imperialism itself.
If there were no other evidence about who is pulling the strings of the protest movement, the tone of the Guardian’s coverage alone would be enough to get alarm bells ringing for anyone even half awake. The description of a protest camp could have been cut and pasted wholesale from everywhere from Tiananmen Square through Benghazi to the Maidan. All is love and peace with no hint of violent insurrection.
“Protest camps in Tahrir square had already taken on a more permanent aspect before the latest shootings, with everything from street theatre and memorials for the dead to a volunteer street clean-up team. Last week, young men and women in high-vis vests and armed with brooms and shovels cleared the thick layer of rubbish accumulated over weeks of protests, bagging up gas canisters, plastic bottles and blankets to leave the area cleaner than most residents remember it ever being.
“Tents made of blue tarpaulin have been set up to shelter students, tribespeople, medics and other groups from the winter cold; between them pedlars sell biscuits and fruit. In a tent bearing the words the ‘people’s theatre’ poetry recitations and experimental theatre performances are held” (Ghaith Abdul-Ahad and Emma Graham-Harrison, ‘Demonstrators grow ever more determined to force real political change in Iraq despite a bloody crackdown which left over 20 dead’, The Guardian, 7 December 2019).
Throw in a couple of Amnesty, Extinction Rebellion and vegan cookery stalls and the Guardian reader’s cup would surely runneth over.
It is not clear to what degree the protests began as a spontaneous wave of popular frustration at social conditions. Some commentators cited on the Moon of Alabama website were identifying the hand of imperialism in organising the demonstrations before the protests had even begun. A Shia militia leader, Qays Khaz’ali, a veteran of the resistance struggle against US occupation, tweeted: “There’s plans to change Baghdad government in November, with protests erupting in October. Protests not spontaneous, but organised by factions in Iraq. Mark my words.” And once the protests got under way, other reports surfaced of rooftop snipers firing both on demonstrators and on security forces, the better to raise the level of violence and chaos (see ‘The US-led coup attempt in Iraq may further weaken the country’, Moon of Alabama, 6 October 2019).
But whilst some of the initial protests may have raised legitimate concerns, the escalating violence made it clear that the protestors were being used as pawns in the imperialist game, the object of which was to undermine the neighbourly assistance offered by Iran, intensify the war of nerves by the US and Israel against Iran, and prevent Iraq from exercising its rights as a sovereign nation.
Estimates of casualty numbers vary between 200 and 400+ dead and thousands injured over the course of two months of unrest, but all these estimates (from the likes of Al Jazeera, AFP and the Guardian) need to be taken with a pinch of salt, and do not acknowledge the reality that many casualties were suffered by the security forces themselves. Whilst Amnesty could be relied to focus attention exclusively on the violence of the security forces and militias in their attempts to stem the tide of protest, denouncing the alleged ‘bloodbath’ of repression, it became increasingly obvious to honest observers that the protests had become a cover for an agenda that was clearly insurrectionary in intent. In city after city, party and government offices were burned by protestors. In Baghdad eight television stations were attacked by mobs, destroying their equipment and stopping them from broadcasting. In the city of Najaf the Iranian embassy was torched. In this atmosphere of heightened violence rumours abounded of a US-instigated plot to oust the Mahdi government. The head of the Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) ifrself, Abdul Wahab al-Saadi, was abruptly transferred to desk duties under a cloud of suspicion.
When Abdel Mahdi finally succumbed to pressure and resigned at the end of November, the leading cleric, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, told the politicians in his sermon to give up on partisan politics in choosing a new head of government, adding “We hope a new head of government and its members will be chosen within the constitutional deadline” of two weeks (Guardian, op. cit.). Whilst he appeared to be giving some support to the protestors, Sistani was also at pains to praise the PMU militias, criticised by imperialism as supposedly under Iranian influence, for their role in beating Islamic State. He also warned against foreign interference in the process, a warning which the West might choose to interpret as aimed at Tehran but which many will read as more a shot across the bow of the US, Saudi Arabia and Israel, which would clearly like to use the protestors as useful idiots in yet another regime-change adventure.
Iraq is at a crossroads and more is at stake than just another change of prime minister. Iraqis will do well to stiffen their resistance to imperialist meddling and hold fast to their real friends.